Thursday, 21 January 2021

Emil Richards & The Microtonal Blues Band ‎– Journey To Bliss (1968)

Style: Free Jazz, Contemporary Jazz, Psychedelic
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Impulse!, ABC Records

A1.   Maharimba
A2.   Bliss
A3.   Mantra
A4.   Enjoy, Enjoy
B1.   Journey To Bliss - Part I
B2.   Journey To Bliss - Part II
B3.   Journey To Bliss - Part III
B4.   Journey To Bliss - Part IV
B5.   Journey To Bliss - Parts V & VI

Bass – Ray Neapolitan
Drums – Joe Porcaro
Guitar – Dennis Budimir, Tom Tedesco
Keyboards – Dave Mackay
Lyrics By – Barbara Gess
Narrator – Hagan Beggs
Percussion – Mark Stevens, Mike Craden
Producer – Bob Thiele
Written-By – B. Gess, Emil Richards, Jules Chaiken

Journey To Bliss by mallet instrumentalist Emil Richards (born 1932) is one of the very few exquisitely Oriental Exotica works with a beatnik aura akin to Eden Ahbez's peculiar revelation Eden's Island (1960). Compare the front artworks of both albums and no further questions should arise. As usual though, there is more to the music than its package.

To be more precise, Journey To Bliss fulfills four genre-related premises at the same time: firstly, it is an Exotica work due to its large amounts of djembes, bongos, sitars, xylophones, gamelan gongs and chimes. Originally published by Impulse! Records in 1968, it has been reissued in 2012 together with Richards' Space-Age hyper-esotericism called Stones (1966). Secondly, Journey To Bliss is a Space-Age work as well due to its year of release alone and the ecstatically weird, mysterious and galactic melodies. Thirdly, it is a Third-Stream release thanks to its complex-convoluted tone sequences rooted in Middle Eastern pentatonicism which are themselves less memorable than the occurring interplay between the different surfaces. And finally, it is an artifact of Psychedelia, you know, that kind of sitar-fueled Rock music that promises those who have an open mind to experience a new innermost part in themselves that becomes muuuuch improved the more repeated smoke-aided listening sessions take place.

Five unique compositions have found their ways onto the album, four of them gathered on side A, with side B being reserved for the eponymous opus, a piece of a whopping 20 minutes divided into six parts, describing an out-of-body experience with the help of enigmatic, sun-dried malletscapes, crystalline-aquatic shapes and the occasional dichotomously enlightening-befuddled spoken line by Emil Richards. Since he cannot create such a densely layered record on his own, he is accompanied by his Microtonal Blues Band, a sextet comprising of Jazz guitarists Dennis Budimir and Tommy Tedesco, pianist Dave Mackay (here on the organ and harpsichord), percussionists Joe Porcaro and Mike Craden as well as bassist Ray Neapolitan. Oscillating between heat and milder temperatures, hypnotizing and tranquilizing bell layers and ever-pointillistic xylophone shapes, Journey To Bliss is maximally intriguing, eminently unique because of its aura, but also adamantly complex and willfully multilayered, so be warned in advance that this is no loungey album for cocktail nights or luaus. However, as an Exotica fan, you should not (dis)miss this album; I am going to tell you why.

It is hot, it is somewhat bucolic, it is definitely inebriated and it is a mirage from the desert: the opener Maharimba takes place in midtempo climes at a thriving oasis. Co-written with trumpeter Jules Chaikin, this tune features Joe Procaro's whiplash-evoking and elastically warped Space-Age drums of the brazen kinds, Tommy Tedesco's guitar strings charged with a back alley rusticity as well as Emil Richard's xylophone and marimba droplets. The result is a mess, but a quirky, euphonious, simply stunning mess, with the layers being seemingly incompatible with each other but still somehow able to merge and permeate the looming presence. Lots of clicks, blebs and crunches are tied together by the psychedelic guitar accompaniment, the only place of stasis and peacefulness.

The final electronic organ shards (or dark matter harpsichord molecules?) lead to the auspicious Bliss, a marker of the things to come on side B. This tune of almost five minutes features Richard's same prowess on the mallet instruments, but is accentuated by much warmer and harmonic guitar chords, fluttering bongos, raunchy tuba spirals as well as a purposefully dissonant harmonica. The tempo is rapidly firing, the sizzling shakers and hi-hats underline the whirling maelstrom of galactic splinters and electronic devices. Portuguese tonalities coalesce with an Oriental waltz in the jungle… on steroids. The multi-faceted physiognomy of Bliss works all the better due to its relatively long runtime, the only negative thing being its sudden fade-out phase. It is comparably demanding and willfully over the top, but lures the skilled Exotica listener with its textures, short-lived alcoves and dry-aqueous state of dualism.

Mantra resides in the same uplifting realms, but is decidedly more funky and even humorous. The opening phase is already enchanting: delicate bongo rhythms are intertwined with liquedous-jungular xylophone airflows, Dennis Budimir's reduced but skillful backing melody on the guitar, Mike Craden's revved up shaker apparitions as well as Dave Mackay's silkened harpsichord helixes. While there is a strong Free Jazz aspect to Mantra with an even stronger focus on improvisations and eclectic sections, its polyphony and melodies are the actual trademarks, the latter not necessarily being catchy per se, but the unison of the partaking instrumentalists adheres an overarching jolliness to the crunchy coils and sunlit sprouts.

The final piece of side A, the hot Enjoy, Enjoy, delivers more of the same xylophone-kindled Sahara sunbursts. However, it features a much denser and varied percussion placenta with bongos, congas, frizzling hi-hats, pipes, bamboo rods and Ray Neapolitan's bass blebs. Emil Richard's xylophone is used as both a percussive and a melodious device, with Dennis Budimir's monotonous guitar twangs being awash with sunlight. Whatever segue is running, the Microtonal Blues Band makes sure that the percussion is always upfront and prominently in the limelight. The bleepy harpsichord is tastefully wonky, and even though the gongs at the end seem to be out of place, they skillfully foreshadow what is to be unchained on side B.

Thus spoke Emil Richards: "There is a river running through me." The six-part Journey To Bliss has reserved side B all for itself and is an aquatic-moist psychedelic Exotica suite of the Middle Eastern kind. It is the real deal of the ornate album, a remark I tend to drop whenever a long piece crosses the paths of the very genre that is loaded with pieces of the two minutes range. Here we have a piece that lives up to the prospects of its title. Co-written with Barbara Gess, Journey To Bliss bursts at the seams. Part I is chock-full of gongs, features arabesques of music box melodies, otherworldly marimbas, a kaleidoscope of glockenspiels and flecks of Space-Age mystique. Most importantly though, Part I establishes the vortex which floats through the other incarnations. Once the tribal bongo beat and gamelan chimes enter the scenery, the feeling of being adrift in that river only grows. Richards' mantra-like prayers or statements are full congruent with the erected strata of bells. There are graspable melodies on here, but they are not particularly noteworthy; it is once again the union of these crystalline sparkles that causes a coruscating aura of wondrousness and positive languor. Part II sees the structure improved with warm rhythm guitars that mesh with the xylophone sprinkles of all timbres. "Warm and gentle and smooth and slow we go," according to Emil Richards. Whereas Part I floated along, Part II introduces a labyrinthine rhythmic pattern that is tremendously hypnotic and alienating, but in a comforting way.

Part III is then all about a "silky brown sand" and much more Ambient-focused, exchanging the plinking clangs and twinkling iridescence of the aforementioned parts with ethereal Chinese gongs and Tommy Tedesco's sitar licks whose decay flows into the glowing quiescence of the reverberated gongs. This is indeed a very blissful state, the heat of the sun is perceptible, the constant, much slower susurration of the gongs and chimes improves the mellowness, no bongo beat is ever attached. Part IV then ventures into faux-African fields and would not be entirely out of place in Tony Scott's African Bird: Come Back! Mother Africa (1984). The beat pattern is once again mesmerizing, an added bass guitar in tandem with saxophone bursts successfully integrates with the downwards cascading xylophone waves. It is the jazziest part of them all.

Journey To Bliss Parts V and VI are merged into one track of five minutes and finish Emil Richards' journey. Now being the river himself, his last installment is streaming in fluxion full of gorgeous djembe and bongo rhythms, sitar licks, cheekily incongruous Space-Age splinters and all chimes, bells, whistles and gongs of the transcendental world. Journey To Bliss winds down in a surprisingly Surf Rock-oriented fashion with catchy sitar riffs – the catchiest ones of the whole album! – and a rather cool entanglement of all previously featured ingredients, ending the album with a swelling legato crescendo that is as far away from the soothing paradise of Part III as the whole composition is from classic Jazz arrangements.

Journey To Bliss is the trippiest Exotica work anyone can find, that is if people are willed to count it as an exotic work, and why shouldn't they? Bongos, djembes, sitars and a mallet instrument extravaganza altogether create a flurry of dazzling sunbeams coming right out of its aural nucleus, bursting into colorful melodies of yellow-ranged timbres. This is a psychedelic masterpiece that is potentially hard to swallow due to its convoluted tone sequences, ever-changing patterns and spiraling notes… but if these are already hard to grasp, never consider Emil Richard's aforementioned true Space-Age album Stones! What Stones lacks – on purpose – in these fields, Journey To Bliss delivers in the compartment of textures and timbres. Emil Richards and his Microtonal Blues Band inject a boldly Oriental feeling, one which is never murky, shady or danger-evoking. Instead, an amicable mystique wafts through the desert panoramas.

While side A features four benign, bustling and bubbling compositions, side B launches the innermost journey which leads to an out-of-body experience. A contradiction? No, for the journey is a gradual one which comprises the most thunderously hectic phases and mooniest ambiences of the album. Since it is divided into six phases, Journey To Bliss (the suite) never becomes boring, even though it shares many textures, rhythms and other characteristics with the first four tracks. Exotica fans who have heard plenty of Polynesian-flavored LP's and one too many Far Eastern works should definitely check out Journey To Bliss – it is one of a kind, a psychedelic Third-Stream Space-Age Exotica work. Its only flaw could potentially be the spoken mantras of Emil Richards, for these diminish the power of the otherwise wordless arrangements, but this is nit-picking. As stated before, Journey To Bliss has thankfully been re-issued in 2012 as a two-for-one CD with Stones. A download version is available as well.

Jon Hassell, Harold Budd, Gavin Bryars ‎– Myths 3. La Nouvelle Sérénité. (1987)

Style: Modern Classical, Experimental, Ambient
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Sub Rosa

1.   Jon Hassell - Map Of Dusk
2.   Harold Budd - Cartago Sand Dancing
3.   Harold Budd - Strange Thunder
4.   Gavin Bryars - Sketch For Sub Rosa
5.   Les Archives Sonores S.R. - 8 Perspectives Romanes

Artwork, Design – Jon Wozencroft
Producer – Sub Rosa

This is a reissue of the third volume in this early Sub Rosa compilation series, originally released in 1987. Features long tracks from Jon Hassell (duo with J.A. Deane, from 1985), never released since; Harold Budd (duo with Eugen Bowen, from 1983) in the mood of "The Serpent in Quicksilver" (with a splendid steel guitar); Gavin Bryars (duo with Andrew Thomson, from 1987); an unpublished sketch for two pianos called "Sketch For Sub Rosa" (later published on ECM with a chamber ensemble); and an excerpt from Les Archives Sonores Sub Rosa, a short film without image. Spanning from 1972-1975, Harold Budd created four individual works under the collective title The Pavilion of Dreams, produced by ambient pioneer Brian Eno. His two subsequent collaborations with Eno, The Plateaux of Mirror and The Pearl, established his trademark atmospheric piano style. Jon Hassell's first recordings were made with minimalist masters La Monte Young and Terry Riley, through whom he met the Hindustani raga master, Pandit Pran Nath. From his studies of the classical Indian music of the Kirana tradition he adapted these techniques to the trumpet and developed a new style of playing which forms the basis of his own unique sound world. Gavin Bryars has written a large number of works, including three operas, and a number of instrumental pieces. His first major work as composer was The Sinking of the Titanic on Brian Eno's Obscure label in 1975. This collection gathers together the most stunning of ambient, atmospheric sound worlds from three very important composers.

Wendy Carlos ‎– Switched-On Bach (1968)

Genre: Electronic, Classical
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: CBS, Columnbia Masterworks

01.   Sinfonia To Cantata No. 29
02.   Air On The G String
03.   Two-Part Invention In F Major
04.   Two-Part Invention In B-Flat Major
05.   Two-Part Invention In D Minor
06.   Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring 2:57
07.   Prelude And Fugue No. 7 In E-Flat Major (From Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I)
08.   Prelude And Fugue No. 2 In C Minor (From Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I)
09.   Chorale Prelude "Wachet Auf"
        Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 In G Major
10.   I-Allegro
11.   II-Andante
12.   III-Allegro

Arranged By, Performer – Wendy Carlos
Composed By – Johann Sebastian Bach
Producer – Rachel Elkind

The first time I ever heard a Moog or analog synthesizer was in 1997, courtesy of Joy Electric. Even in the niche genre that is Contemporary Christian Music, Ronnie Martin set himself even farther on the fringes by composing goth-pop songs about Jesus on a monophonic synth incapable of playing a traditional chord.

I was completely enamored by this method of music-making. It struck me as the right sort of outside art – Joy Electric didn’t use such an instrument to make some sort of twee curio statement. He did it because he liked it and was good at it.

I spent several years working in Christian retail trying to convert people to the Gospel of Joy Electric. My former coworkers might even attribute my tepid career as a music writer to convincing customers that they really did should add this combination of twinkling synths, breathy falsetto tenor, and fantastical lyrics to their collection of Jesus music.

Wendy Carlos' Switched-On Bach | Music, Technology, and Society | Bearded Gentlemen Music

Despite my fascination with the Moog, I wasn’t exposed to Switched-on Bach until my late 20’s. I was playing Joy Electric late one evening at the coffee shop where I worked, and one of my favorite customers stopped short as soon as they entered the store. After absorbing the music for a few moments, they walked over to me and asked,

“Is that a Moog I hear in that music?”

I quickly responded in the affirmative and proceeded to gush about Joy Electric. Being a professional composer in their own right, they immediately started quizzing me on the music of Wendy Carlos. The name wasn’t familiar to me, but the music was – especially the classic TRON soundtrack, a movie I watched dozens of times as a kid. This beloved customer promised to bring me THE Wendy Carlos album on their next visit, and once I had a burned CD of Switched-On Bach in my hands, it didn’t leave my car’s CD player for a week.

So, when I learned that Bloomsbury was releasing a new 33 1/3 installment about this excellent collection of Johann Sebastian Bach songs performed on a Moog, I was eager to read and review it. But I was not expecting to be alternately dazzled and challenged by Roshanak Kheshti’s critical examination of culture, technology, and journalism. She examines feminism, gender, class, and sexuality through the lens of people’s fear of change as represented by the album, the Moog, and Wendy Carlos.

Upon my first read-through, I was confused by the lack of information and insight into the music itself, these 250-year-old acclaimed compositions. I wondered openly as to why Kheshti failed to provide any backstory of the songs – even bits about why Carlos chose what to record what she did. But as I started to read the book again, the realization hit: the music is actually immaterial to why the album is important. The timelessness of Bach’s music may have helped convince the greater public to purchase the album – which won multiple Grammy Awards and gone multi-platinum – but the true story lies in the person of Wendy Carlos and the Moog as a way to make music.

The book asks you to assume the music to be self-evident: Carlos played Bach songs on a Moog. That’s that. What’s actually worth discussing is the context of the music, not the content. Hence, the book is best understood as a deep dive into the life of Carlos, the Moog as an instrument, and how together they helped create, shape, and change the popular discourse on how music performed solely on a synthesizer should be regarded.

Thus, understanding the hows, whens, and whys driving Carlos, her aesthetic, and the response to them proved much more interesting and worthy of reflection. Early and often, Kheshti drives home the point that the synthesizer is a valid form of music-making, one that was championed primarily by women from its earliest days. Making music this way continues to be revolutionary because the greater public still fetishizes traditional instrumentation.

As the argument still goes in some circles, “Electronic artists can’t be real musicians because they can’t actually play the instruments they’re voicing through a patch, mod, pad, or designed sound. Yes, such devices have keys and resemble a piano, but they aren’t really pianos, and all you’re doing is manipulating electronics with switches, cords, wires, and software.”

The case being presented in this book is that the purpose of Switched-On Bach as an album was to dispel those rumors and misunderstandings while also serving as a showcase for the Moog’s abilities and Carlos’ talents. Each note of those classic Bach compositions was carefully reproduced on the Moog by Carlos and then shaped into a lustrous whole by Carlos and her most excellent producer, Rachel Elkind. The result is an album that helped people gain a greater understanding of the role that new technology should and can take in modern music-making.

But Kheshti didn’t stop there. She dives headlong into a feminist critique of the music industry’s response to the person of Wendy Carlos and what she represented as a champion of the Moog and synths in general. By using postcolonial theory and gender studies as crucial lenses, the concept of “shape-shifting” comes to the fore. Through copious clips of Carlos interviews, the reader is introduced to the idea that sythns can represent a new expression of humanity, one that breaks down the walls of both the gender binary and technological nationalism.

To whit, early synthesizers – including the theremin – were developed as weapons, not musical instruments. Both the Soviet and American governments of the Cold War-era treated synths as a way to create agitprop, not music. Even today, the popular conceptions of technology are dominated by bros, ranging from Edison, Gates, Jobs, and Musk to gamers and characters in Silicon Valley, both real life and on HBO.

But such ideas are media creations the focus solely on straightforward functions that can be exploited for capitalistic gains. Wendy Carlos represents the idea that technology, as represented by the synthesizer, is designed to push the limits of human expression. It’s about making, not selling; it’s about exploring, not marketing; it’s about being the person you really are, not rigidly fitting everyone inside a box. In fact, Carlos gave herself the moniker of “Original Synth” and often referred to herself as a cyborg, not in the Star Trek sense, but as someone who willingly uses technology and cybernetics to push humanity into its future.

Ultimately, Khesti’s thesis rings true in my ears: the power and lasting impact of Switched-On Bach lies not the music, but in the barriers, bars, and walls it exposed. As a trans woman, Wendy Carlos spent years being interviewed about her transition and gender identity at the expense of actually talking about her music. This continues today as a woman and gender non-conforming composers are still seen as nonstandard or atypical, even as historians like Tara Rodgers have revealed the long and important history of their contributions to electronic music.

Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach is the type of entry that keeps me coming back to the 33 1/3 series. Khesti’s work has completely opened up my mind and understanding of what the Moog should be as a musical instrument and what Wendy Carlos hoped to accomplish by recording music as she did. By facing detractors and naysayers head-on with her ideals and accomplishments, she pushed the shape-shifting potential of the synthesizer out of the shadows and into the forefront of musical conversation.
Adam P. Newton / Bearded Gentlemen Music

Wendy Carlos ‎– Switched-On Bach 2000 (1992)

Genre: Electronic, Classical
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Telarc, East Side Digital

01.   Happy 25th, S-OB!
02.   Sinfonia In D Major (From "Cantana No. 208")
03.   Air On A G String (From "Suite In D Major")
04.   Two-Part Invention In F Major
05.   Two-Part Invention In B-Flat Major
06.   Two-Part Invention In D Minor
07.   Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring
        The Well-Tempered Clavier
08.   Prelude No. 7 In E-Flat Major
09.   Fugue No. 7 In E-Flat Major
10.   Prelude No. 2 In C-Minor
11.   Fugue No. 2 In C-Minor
12.   Wachet Auf (From "Cantana No. 140")
        Brandenberg Concerto No. 3 In G Major
13.   I-Allegro
14.   II-Adagio
15.   III-Allegro
16.   Toccato & Fugue In D Minor

Composed By – Johann Sebastian Bach, Wendy Carlos
Performer, Arranged By, Producer, Engineer – Wendy Carlos

Switched-On Bach 2000 is a bit of a misnomer. Wendy Carlos released this on the Telarc label in 1992 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of her classic recording, Switched-On Bach. That recording, remarkably futuristic in 1967, is still a major milestone in the history of e-music. (It is also, alas, long since unavailable.) Carlos' mastery of the synthesizer in the '60s and her transcriptions of classical music were extremely instrumental in moving electronic music from its strict avant-garde classification to an acceptable and accessible form of musical expression. These are beautiful recordings, too. Given the composing and the performing talent, it is difficult to imagine anything else. This CD comes with a 30-page booklet full of wonderful technical, historical, and biographical data. It all comes back, however, to the music. This performance is damn near perfect. Carlos' meticulous attention to detail and her production skills serve this project well. There are no mistakes. In her style, Carlos has few peers. Among the electronic music artists successfully transcribing classical music are Tangerine Dream, Michael Stearns, Kevin Keller, William Orbit, Isao Tomita (of course), and Michael Bentley.
Jim Brenholts / AllMusic